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500 Nations Part 1 Essay

500 Nations
GenreHistorical documentary
Created byJack Leustig
Narrated byGregory Harrison
Country of originUS
Original language(s)English
No. of seasons1
No. of episodes8

500 Nations is an eight-part documentary on the Native Americans of North and Central America. It documents events from the Pre-Columbian era to the end of the 19th century. Much of the information comes from text, eyewitnesses, pictorials, and computer graphics. The series was hosted by Kevin Costner, narrated by Gregory Harrison, and directed by Jack Leustig. It included the voice talents of Eric Schweig, Gordon Tootoosis, Wes Studi, Cástulo Guerra, Tony Plana, Edward James Olmos, Patrick Stewart, Gary Farmer, Tom Jackson, Tantoo Cardinal, Dante Basco, Sheldon Peters Wolfchild, Tim Bottoms, Michael Horse, Graham Greene, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Amy Madigan, Frank Salsedo, and Kurtwood Smith. The series was written by Jack Leustig, Roberta Grossman, Lee Miller (head of research), and W. T. Morgan, with Dr. John M. D. Pohl.

"The truth is, we have a story worth talking about. We have a history worth celebrating. Long before the first Europeans arrived here, there were some 500 nations already in North America. They blanketed the continent from coast to coast, from Central America to the Arctic. There were tens of millions of people here, speaking over 300 languages. Many of them lived in beautiful cities, among the largest and most advanced in the world. In the coming hours, 500 Nations looks back on those ancient cultures, how they lived, and how many survived.... What you're about to see is what happened. It's not all that happened, and it's not always pleasant. We can't change that. We can't turn back the clock. But we can open our eyes and give the first nations of this land the recognition and respect they deserve: their rightful place in the history of the world." Kevin Costner[1]

A 468-page book by the same name, published in 1994, containing far more detailed information, is based upon the documentary.[2]


Episode 1: Wounded Knee Legacy and the Ancestors[edit]

The series begins "where our story ends" with eyewitness accounts of Wounded Knee. The Ancestors next offers excerpts from Native American Creation stories, then explores three early North American cultures, including the 800-room Pueblo Bonito in the arid southwest, the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde and Cahokia, the largest city in the U.S. before 1800. [3]

Episode 2: Mexico[edit]

A history of the native nations of Mexico from pre-Columbian times, through the period of European contact and colonization, including the rise and fall of the Toltecs and the growth of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. [3]

Episode 3: Clash of Cultures[edit]

As Native nations defy a plundering advance of Spanish expeditions in the Caribbean and what will become the southeastern United States, two undefeatable attacks, muskets and disease, cause thousands of deaths.[3]

Episode 4: Invasion of the Coast[edit]

Tensions rise as more foreigners arrive in North America, and affect the lives of native peoples. At Jamestown, the story of the Powhatan princess, Pocahontas, unfolds. Thanksgiving at Plymouth leads to a bloody colonial Indian war in 1675.[3]

Episode 5: Cauldron of War[edit]

European powers fight to control American resources, turning native homelands into a Cauldron of War. Many indigenous nations side with France, but when the defeated country leaves its native allies vulnerable, a determined leader, Pontiac (person), rises to prominence.[3]

Episode 6: Removal[edit]

Being forced to follow the Trail of Tears displaces Native Americans even though they adopt American ways. Shawnee leader Tecumseh sparks a return to traditional ways but The Indian Removal Act is enforced in 1830. Many stoically accept; others resist.[3]

Episode 7: Roads Across the Plains[edit]

Lifestyles of native peoples of the Great Plains end as American settlers destroy huge buffalo herds. Though native leaders pursue peace, they are massacred at Sand Creek. The massacre provokes severe repercussions.[3]

Episode 8: Attack on Culture[edit]

Legislative attacks on native ways included the disbanding of communal land. Today, native cultures are allowed to renew, and to remember the lifestyles of America's original people, and the hardships they endured.[3]


There was an educational computer game based on the documentary made by Microsoft Home the same year it was released.

External links[edit]


  1. ^500 Nations, Introduction, Episode 1: Wounded Knee Legacy and The Ancestors (quotation from 2 minutes to 4 minutes after beginning of introduction).
  2. ^Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. (1994). 500 Nations an Illustrated History of North American Indians. New York, New York: Alfred A, Knopf. p. Title. ISBN 0-679-42930-1. 
  3. ^ abcdLeustig, Jack (2006). "The Documentary Episodes". The 500 NATIONS Encore Venture. Tig Productions Inc. and Katahdin Productions, LLC. Archived from the original on 2008-05-03. Retrieved 2010-03-09. 

A Native Nations Perspective on the War of 1812

By Donald Fixico

The War of 1812 was an important conflict with broad and lasting consequences, particularly for the native inhabitants of North America.  During the pivotal years before the war, the United States wanted to expand its territories, a desire that fueled the invasion of native homelands throughout the interior of the continent. Tribal nations of the lower Great Lakes, including the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and others saw their lands at risk.  The same was true for the Muscogee Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw in the south.

The Native leaders who emerged in response to this expansion shared a single concern, that of protecting tribal lands. There were Indians who sided with the Americans -- Red Jacket and Farmer’s Brother led a Seneca faction to help the Americans at the Battles of Fort George and Chippewa. But most Indian nations sided with the British against the U.S, believing that a British victory might mean an end to expansion.  In all, more than two dozen native nations participated in the war. In addition to the Lower Great Lakes Indians, led by Tecumseh, and Southern Indians, the Mohawks fought under Chief John Norton to hold onto their lands in southern Quebec and eastern Ontario.

The Indian Confederation under Tecumseh

The Shawnee war chief, Tecumseh, and his brother the Prophet, also known as Tenskatawa, played crucial roles in leading the Indians in the war.  By 1811, Tecumseh had built a confederation of more than two dozen Indian nations, all of whom hoped to stop the American settler encroachment on their lands. One might ask why would they be concerned?  The answer is clear.  Tecumseh and his followers had observed eastern coast and upper Great Lakes Indians being removed from their lands by settler expansion, and they had seen a domino effect as one removed nation encroached on another’s land.  The residential order of more than one hundred eastern Indian nations had been permanently disrupted.  Furthermore, both the French and Indian War, called the Seven Year’s War in Canada (1756 to 1763) and the American Revolution (1775 to 1783) cost many native nations lives and land. The Indians in Tecumseh’s confederation had every reason to be concerned about the future. 

It’s important to ask not only about the native leaders methods for dealing with the situation, but also to ask about their decisions, their influences and their vision for future relations with the United States and Britain.  Tecumseh is a good case in point, since it was his decision, as a leader, to try to build a strong system of many alliances with other native nations.  At the time, each native nation consisted of a few to several communities, each speaking a different language.  Tecumseh realized that he had to depend on interpreters to translate his conversations and speeches to each Indian nation that he came into contact with.  He also knew that he would have to raise a massive but focused army, drawing from these diverse Indian nations, a daunting task.  Imagine trying to get all of Europe, with its different cultures and languages, to fight as a single army.   Finally, Tecumseh’s decision to forge an alliance with the British shows him to be a leader wise in the ways of statecraft.  The daily challenges of managing an Indian confederation and an alliance with the British would be daunting for any individual. 

Tecumseh’s and the other Indians’ decision-making process went well beyond politics.  He and his fellow leaders knew that the British and American linear minds moved from claiming the land, to colonization and exploitation of natural resources.  They knew their own process was one of native logic and inclusiveness -- involving the flora and fauna and native communal values and relationships.  Thus, the Indians were acting on a different system than either the U.S. or the British.  Choosing the British as an ally was difficult at best, but the future of native North American hung in the balance.
Tecumseh preached his confederation and alliance point-of-view to various tribes, arguing that, in the big picture, an Indian confederation held the hope of stopping U.S. westward expansion.  He gained respect in almost every case, and many followers, although the Choctaws stood firmly for neutrality.  Pushmataha, the noted Choctaw leader, opposed Tecumseh’s grand alliance.

Tippecanoe and the Aftermath

In 1811, when Tecumseh was in the South, a group of natives led by Tenskwatawa, attacked U.S. army forces in the Battle of Tippecanoe.  The battle was a draw, but the U.S. General William Henry Harrison declared victory and then had his troops sack and burn Prophetstown, Tecumseh’s home base in the Indiana territory. Following the Tippecanoe defeat, Tecumseh realized even more how important it was for a British alliance.
During the war, the Indian nations fought more than forty battles and skirmishes against the U.S.  In southern Canada, pro-British and pro-U.S. Iroquois found themselves fighting each other, but in most engagements, the native forces fought alongside the British.  They were key to the British success at both Detroit and Queenston; at the Battle of Beaver dams native warriors, with no help from their British counterparts, defeated the Americans, taking 500 prisoners of war.  Although the Creek War of 1813-1814 is not normally viewed as a part of the War of 1812, Creek resistance to the U.S. Army in the south led to a series of battles that eventually crushed Indian military power in that region.

The Loss of a Leader

Perhaps the most significant battle took place in 1813 in Canada.   Tecumseh and his warriors, deserted by the British forces, faced a pursuing army of Americans led by William Henry Harrison at the Battle of the Thames.  As this confrontation became certain, Tecumseh promised his warriors that there would be no retreat.  This battle, he felt, must be won in order to stop American westward expansion in all areas.   But Tecumseh was mortally wounded, and his death and defeat marked the end of the native campaign to drive back white settlers.  On a larger scale, the American victory cleared the way for the U.S. claim to the native interior of North America with more treaty negotiations following, resulting in numerous removals of most of the eastern woodland Indian communities to the west. 

After the War of 1812, the U.S. negotiated over two hundred Indian treaties that involved the ceding of Indian lands and 99 of these agreements resulted in the creation of reservations west of the Mississippi River.  Other native resistance movements sprang up, including the Black Hawk War of 1832 and the Second Seminole War (1835 to 1842), but neither affected so many different Indian nations as did the War of 1812. 

Both the war and the treaty that ended it proved to be devastating to all of the eastern Indian nations.  The Ghent agreement halted U.S. expansion into Iroquois land in Canada, and some native communities of the Great Lakes managed to remain in their original home areas, but their small numbers posed no threat to the existence or the expansion of the United States.

Donald Fixico is the Distinguished Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University, and the author of Treaties with American Indians: An Encyclopedia of Rights, Conflicts and Sovereignty and Rethinking American Indian History.

Legacies of the War

The Legacy of the War of 1812 and the impact it had on Native nations in North America.

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